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Greek austerity vote forces Europe to confront bigger issues than economics

Greece plays a key role in two of the biggest headaches policymakers are facing: relations with Russia, and the flood of Middle East and African refugees heading for Europe.

Greek voters Sunday rejected further economic austerity measures.
REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

The immediate result of Greece’s vote Sunday against more austerity is going to be more of what Europe has endured in recent weeks: more drama, more shouting and finger-pointing, and more officials scurrying to Very Important Meetings at which nothing really happens.

But cooler heads eventually will prevail and something substantive will occur. When it does, regardless of whether Greece remains in the euro zone, the deal it makes with its European Union partners will not only be about the financial questions that are driving everyone mad. It probably will take into account geopolitical issues like refugees and relations with Russia, and also how it plays in Madrid.

From the Greek side, it’s all reasonably clear. Powerful EU figures may have warned that the referendum was in effect a vote on whether Greece wanted to stick with the common currency — and swallow more of the medicine the EU has been prescribing for the past five years. But to the majority of Greeks it looked different.

Even though polls had indicated a very close vote, Greeks appear to have bought Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ argument that a ‘no’ vote would help him negotiate better terms.

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Greece wants to stay in the European Union, and stick with the euro — under better terms.

When they finally decide whether to cut Greece more slack, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU officials will have to take into account a number of other factors.

According to this analysis, no matter how frustrated they are with Greece, Merkel and other EU leaders will want to maintain the relationship to help stabilize the shakiest part of Europe, its southeast corner.

They’ll specifically want to consider Greece’s connection to two of the biggest headaches policymakers are facing: relations with Russia, and the flood of Middle East and African refugees heading for Europe.

Russia looms

Since his election in January, Tsipras has visited Moscow twice — the last time in mid-June. Russia and Greece share a bond through history and culture: Both are Orthodox Christian countries. Tsipras has criticized EU economic sanctions imposed on Russia because of its meddling in Ukraine.

He did not stand in the way of a renewal of the sanctions last month, a decision that has to be unanimous. But it’s relatively easy to see that an antagonistic Greek government could cause problems for EU policy toward Russia, and provide Russian President Vladimir Putin an opening to begin chipping away at the sanctions.

Refugee crisis

The Greek defense minister caused an uproar earlier this year by threatening to flood Germany with refugees, including Islamic State terrorists. Greece since backtracked, but the central fact remains: Greece is along one of the most popular routes for asylum-seekers and economic refugees heading for Europe, and Germany is among their most popular destinations.

Geographically, Greece is within easy reach from the chaos gripping Syria, Iraq and other Middle East countries.

For the last several years, the route across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy has gotten the most attention. How to handle the refugees is a hugely divisive issue within the EU. European officials were embarrassed by their weak effort to patrol the Mediterranean after a couple of boats sank within days this spring, killing more than a thousand people.

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Historically, the number of people who use a particular route tends to vary, depending on factors including border security. European officials already dealing with a flood of refugees won’t want to have Greek border guards look the other way.

Members of the club

Then, there is the issue of how the bargaining with Greece looks to other EU countries. The critical one appears to be Spain, and the question increasingly is about what it means to be a member of the club.

How much control over your internal affairs do you need to surrender? And if the answer turns out to be not much, then what exactly does it mean to be a member?

While Greece a relatively small country, Spain is the fourth largest in the EU. Voters there seem equally fed up with austerity, and a movement with views very similar to Tsipras is on a roll. Officials of the movement, Podemos, were quick to praise the result of the Greek referendum.

Here are the words of its leader, Pablo Iglesias, at a rally prior to the vote:  “In my opinion, the problem isn’t Greece, the problem is Europe, Germany and the IMF are destroying the political project of Europe. … The IMF and the German government are attacking democracy.”

National elections are coming in Spain. But in the meantime, candidates linked to Podemos won the mayors’ offices in six major Spanish cities in May, one factor prompting this piece by Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation under the headline: “Spain’s Podemos Could Make Greece Look Like Child’s Play.”

So when EU officials craft a policy for Greece, they’ll probably be thinking about Spain, as well. And maybe even Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a vote on whether to remain in the EU.

Their countries are far different. But just like Tsipras, Cameron says he wants to stay in the EU — under better terms.